A touch of the human

In honor of Vladimir Voinovich‘s memory, I’ve been reading and enjoying Monumental Propaganda, his great satire of the cult of personality in the former Soviet Union and contemporary Russia (and, these days, the United States as well). I’m glad to see that following his death a few months ago, his body of work has been increasingly recognized as the wonderfully humane panorama that it is; most notably, Cathy Young wrote this touching memoir for the Weekly Standard.

Voinovich was one of the great satirists of the 20th century, and he became so at great personal risk, as Young’s essay will attest. Time will tell whether he was also one of the great satirists of the 21st. Beginning with his earliest fiction, collected in In Plain Russian, Voinovich evinced a sense of the absurd as well as a deep concern with ordinary Russians as they negotiated the evils of the Soviet state; his settings aren’t prison camps or the back offices of the KGB but small towns, and most of his characters are merely trying to get by. There are few actual villains in books like The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, but, as in Monumental Propaganda, there is always a sense of the oppressive evil attaching to authoritarianism of any stripe, and the foolishness and stupidity that seem to be an innate part of our makeup as individual human beings. Through all of Voinovich’s work runs the realization that, because we all live in history, the personal is political and the political is personal, and that this can have hilariously comic as well as profoundly tragic consequences.

Although many of his books are fairly easy to come across thanks to their availability in second-hand editions (and despite their being out of print), I make my own unrealistic demand here that some savvy publisher will release his final novel, The Crimson Pelican (2016), in English translation (Young has already completed one; you can sample it here), as well as his 2007 autobiography.

A bookshelf for the Trump era

Back in 1971, a year before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein put their bylines on their first story about a little hotel yclept Watergate, Philip Roth’s vitriolic anger towards the Nixon administration led him to publish Our Gang, a book-length satire of the 37th U.S. president. A political fantasia, the book concluded with a chapter about Nixon’s campaign against Satan for the leadership of Hell. The estimable Dwight Macdonald reviewed the book in the New York Times, calling it “far-fetched, unfair, tasteless, disturbing, logical, coarse and very funny — I laughed out loud 16 times and giggled internally a statistically unverifiable amount. In short, a masterpiece.”

Roth’s book appeared during a particularly virile period of American satire, especially that of the Menippean variety. In 1971, William Gaddis and Joseph Heller were working on their second novels (J R and Something Happened, respectively), which were arguably more vitriolic than their first; Terry Southern had just published Blue Movie; and the National Lampoon had just entered its early golden period. These days, satire is alive and well in too many places to be mentioned here — but not, interestingly enough, in bookstores.

The Trump period has yet to be limned by a novelist of Philip Roth’s caliber, and though the 45th U.S. president has already tried to characterize Bob Woodward’s Fear as a work of fiction, almost everybody else is happy to keep it on the non-fiction shelves. This has led me to take just a few minutes to daydream: if some writers appear to be prescient in terms of their cultures, what books, primarily satiric in intent, of the recent and not-so-recent past might have warned us about the political culture we face today?

Off the top of my head, below are just a few novels and fewer non-fiction screeds, well-thumbed on my shelves, that seem to have predicted our current crisis; alas, as satire, they’re not obligated to provide solutions. (That current crisis itself is covered in some detail by Mr. Woodward and in fine books by Edward Luce, Timothy Snyder, and others.) Some of these address the kind of culture that leads to the creation and emergence of a Donald Trump; some address the kind of culture that leads people to vote for and support him. I’ve tried to avoid the obvious (George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis), first because I’m not quite convinced that they’re as germane as some people think, but also because they rank fairly low in terms of laughs. I’ve limited these to the twentieth century, but only reluctantly. Readers are welcome to offer their own candidates in the comments section below.

Books on the bedside table

Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast by Bruce Bastin (University of Illinois Press, 1986 [hc]; 1995 [pb]) claims to be, according to the book jacket, the “definitive story of the origin and evolution of the American blues tradition.” Well, it’s not quite that, but certainly it’s among the best historical introductions to the Piedmont Blues tradition. Working with folklorist Peter B. Lowry, Bastin undertook a years-long investigation into the history and the then-current status of the Piedmont Blues; in the book, chapters are devoted to Georgia blues pianists, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Gary Davis, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, among many others. Bastin’s attempt to be comprehensive can lead to longueurs, and his prose lacks the sparkle of Sam Charters and Robert Palmer at times, but on the whole it’s indispensable.

Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer by Henry Nash Smith (Harvard University Press, 1962 [hc]; Atheneum, 1972 [pb]) was one of the first books to focus exclusively on Twain’s development as a writer rather than his colorful biography, with chapters on most of Twain’s major novels, speeches, and short fictions. What’s especially interesting is Smith’s description of Twain’s use of the American vernacular as it emerged from The Innocents Abroad all the way through A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court and his ongoing experiments with the novel form (something lacking in the continuing critical dialogue about Twain’s work even today).

The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book (Little, Brown and Company, 1997 [hc]; Back Bay Books, 1998 [pb]) is the go-to compilation of Crumb’s early- to mid-career achievements. Those who are only familiar with the Terry Zwigoff documentary about the cartoonist may be disappointed; as Ty Burr wrote in an essay about the book for the New York Times:

Where’s the wacky, dysfunctional family circus, the suicidal older brother upstairs, the younger brother on a bed of nails in an S.R.O. hotel, the carnal comedy of Crumb’s ex-girlfriends discoursing on his sexual dimensions?

They’re all merely alluded to in passing, and that is precisely the point. … [The] slick, often astoundingly funny 250-page compendium does make a case — up to a point — for Mr. Crumb as an unparalleled craftsman, social critic, sexual obsessive, blues freak, fly-on-the-wall of the 60’s and perhaps the most potent cultural curmudgeon since H. L. Mencken.

Going through this book (and The Weirdo Years, which picks up chronologically where the Coffee Table Art Book leaves off), I think an even stronger case can be made that Crumb is, in many ways, today’s Mark Twain. Like Twain, Crumb’s vocabulary is distinctly American; both artists evince an ambiguous nostalgia for a past that may be just corrupt as the present but which appeals more to their temperaments than our current culture; and both twist the cultural forms in which their work appears (the boy’s book and pastoral romance in Twain’s case; the comic book in Crumb’s) to expand the possibilities of those chosen forms, turning those vehicles for popular culture into bizarre, idiosyncratic satiric visions of the society in which they live. Crumb is not unlike Twain — with the sex added.

Book notes

President Barack Obama presents a National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth during a ceremony in the White House on March 2, 2011. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo.

Philip Roth

I was saddened to hear this morning about the death of Philip Roth yesterday. Roth was among the last of the great writers who defined the American experience of the second half of the twentieth century. I confess I’m no Roth completist, but certainly Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint were among the significant reading experiences of my youth; I also admired his Zuckerman books and his memoirs, and when I read Nemesis, his moving final novel, a few years ago, I noted no falling off of his powers. Also, in 1971, Roth published Our Gang, a Swiftian satire of Richard Nixon which ended with our most disgraced president (to date) running against Satan for the post of Devil in Hell. And this, two years before Watergate broke.

Roth has been in the news since 2016 for his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, an alternate history that explores what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh had won the 1940 presidential election and led America down the path to totalitarianism. (President Donald Trump is apparently making America read again — The Plot Against America, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and George Orwell’s 1984 have been enjoying a resurgence of popularity over the past few years.) But Roth didn’t consider himself a prophet, comparing Lindbergh to Trump in a New York Times interview last January:

However prescient The Plot Against America might seem to you, there is surely one enormous difference between the political circumstances I invent there for the U.S. in 1940 and the political calamity that dismays us so today. It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency. Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.

If only we still had Roth with us to write a sequel to Our Gang. We could sure use one.

Roth will be missed. The Guardian has this obituary by Eric Homberger and this appreciation by Richard Lea.

Ernest Hemingway

In anticipation of a trip to Paris next month, I’ve been reading A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumously-published memoir of his early days in the City of Light in the 1920s. If you haven’t gone back to Hemingway in a while, I recommend picking up The Sun Also Rises or A Moveable Feast; his plain style is still a palate-cleansing relief these days.

I never particularly liked the work of Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway manages to put his finger on why. “When I had come back from trips that I had made to the different political conferences or to the Near East or Germany for the Canadian paper and the news services that I worked for she wanted me to tell her about all the amusing details,” Hemingway writes. “She wanted to know the gay part of how the world was going; never the real, never the bad.” Later, after Stein has called Hemingway and his compatriots a “lost generation” (the phrase that will live in immortal infamy), Hemingway turns this around in his head on the walk home, thinking of the suffering that he and his fellow veterans had seen in the Great War, especially after Stein has berated a garage mechanic. “She had some ignition trouble with the old Model T Ford she then drove and the young man who worked in the garage and had served in the last year of the war had not been adept, or perhaps had not broken the priority of other vehicles, in repairing Miss Stein’s Ford,” Hemingway writes.

But that night walking home I thought about the boy in the garage and if he had ever been hauled in one of those vehicles when they were converted to ambulances. … I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation? … I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be. … The hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels.

From the archives: “I think this is a shattered time”

William Gaddis. Photograph by William Gass.

As I follow the rather discouraging headlines, I’m reading (among other things, not least the Gospel of Luke, most suitable for these times with its emphasis on the poor, the marginalized, and the sick) Kenneth Paul Kramer’s Redeeming Time, a book-length study of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Last year on May 1 I published the below post, which touches on Eliot’s poem and Gaddis’s pessimism, suggestive of my own, I suppose.

From an interview with William Gaddis, conducted by Christopher Walker and published in the Observer on February 27, 1994:

The Fifties was a fragmented time and I think this is a shattered time. And so, as I’ve gone on, the kind of shattered element that we live with is what has become more a part of the style. … [T.S. Eliot’s] “East Coker” condenses everything I am trying to say in about 20 lines:

a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating …

I think that America is a great country, but it has gone off the rails in a number of ways and those ways should be brought to public attention. There is this naive thing in many writers about changing things. Against all odds, I still harbor that silly notion that things might get better. …

I see myself as the rear-guard, as the last of something. … I don’t know what. My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order.

From Paul Griffiths’ review of The Letters of William Gaddis, published in the Times Literary Supplement on June 12, 2013:

Gaddis was always good at pessimism (“I’ve got rid of most of the despair & am now just desperate”), but he could have added — and implicitly in these letters often does — that we are distinguished also by our ability to protest, to parody, to frustrate the pattern and, in a word, to live, “every, every moment,” to add another of his favorite quotations, from Thornton Wilder. As he wrote to his daughter, “damnedest thing is people saying I’m negative whereas it’s these affirmations of life amidst its appalling uncertainties and setbacks that I most admire.”